There's no place like home. And there's no better – or worse – place than Florida in 2010 to illustrate how the real estate bust of 2008 created more misery per square metre than most filmgoers would have dreamed possible. "Housing bubble" sounds almost poetic but there's nothing remotely attractive about the fallout when it pops, something director Ramin Bahrani depicts brilliantly in his 99 Homes.
The riveting feature, his 5th, is meticulously researched and rings true emotionally. "Nobody's better informed than Ramin," Michael Shannon told us at France's Deauville Festival of American Film where 99 Homes took the top prize in the 14-title competition in mid-September.
Shannon co-stars as Rick Carver, a career realtor who acquires and resells foreclosed properties. "There's not a lot of overlap between me and Rick Carver," says Shannon, whose disinterest in property means he has never even wanted to own a house. "Although we both do have a similar feeling about real estate, which is that you shouldn't get emotional about it. I can say that I agree with that – it's not worth getting emotional."
Because he cared so little about real estate, it took spending time with an authentic real estate broker to hone the character. "The dichotomy is that what for the homeowner is their sanctuary, for the developer and their business partners is just a way to make money," says Shannon. "That system is bound to cause heartbreak at some point."
That point arrives with all the subtlety of a cannonball to the gut on eviction day.
Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) didn't do anything inherently cavalier or irresponsible. He's a skilled and hard-working construction worker who knows his way around carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring – all the stuff that most of us need to hire a specialist to handle. He's an honest man. We meet him as part of a crew whose foreman abruptly instructs everybody to put their tools down. Why? Because the client who ordered them to build the house they're working on ran out of money. Nobody will get paid for two full weeks of work. There is no recourse, no protection. We see Dennis calling everywhere he can think of in search of work. "Urgent" doesn't begin to describe his dilemma. He borrowed money against the modest family home where he lives with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) who runs a beauty parlour out of their living room and his son, Connor, to whom he's a loving dad.
Dennis, Lynn and Connor meet Rick the day he comes to evict them, with two Sherriff's deputies. To say the process is brutal is like pointing out that having your fingernails yanked off might hurt. We experience the eviction, in what feels like real time, as the home's tenants do. A handful of minutes to gather any "photos or medication" you might like to take with you before the waiting crew changes the locks and starts dumping your possessions on the sidewalk.
The roof you worked so hard to keep over your head and every shingle in it is now the property of the bank. Rick Carver's high pressure business is acquiring and "flipping" houses.
Watch the interview with Michael Shannon:
The film's opening reels establish enough conflict and offer enough obstacles to make half a dozen films. What we see is scrupulously accurate. "Nobody knows more about this period – nobody I've talked to anyway – than Ramin," says an admiring Shannon. "The amount of research he does is staggering. They've really thought up a giant variety of ways to screw people over."
Amazingly we, as viewers, get used to the eviction patter as Rick and his deputies clear house after house of its human inhabitants with as little emotion as a busboy clearing dirty dishes from restaurant tables.
This area of Florida is tediously flat but Dennis ends up on a slippery slope with a sharp drop-off. Since he collects foreclosed homes like a sleazy politician collects handshakes, Rick – the very man who turned Dennis out of his home – offers Dennis $50 to clean up the mess at one of his many properties.
The downside of ejecting people from their homes is that sometimes they take an attitude of "If I can't have it, then nobody can" and do something vindictive like block the pipes so the house will fill with sewage.
Dennis has the gumption to be a living metaphor and, up to his ankles in the stuff politely called "excrement", proves he's got a work ethic and the skills to match. Rick pays him to do repairs, something Dennis hides from his mum and son. They're now living in one room in a horrible motel whose other tenants are all ex-home owners like themselves.
In hopes of getting his house back, Dennis does whatever Rick tells him to do. And what Rick tells him to do is increasingly slimy, unethical, opportunistic and not pretty. Because it so happens there are fortunes to be made in exploiting human misery.
Watching Dennis and Rick is like watching people whose internal organs have been swapped for pressure cookers. Garfield and Shannon couldn't be better.
Watch '99 Homes'
Monday 6 April, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, David Maldonado
What's it about?
After his family is evicted from their home, proud and desperate construction worker Dennis Nash (Garfield) tries to win his home back by striking a deal with the devil and working for Rick Carver (Shannon), the corrupt real estate broker who evicted him. From director Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo).